‘A Family Affair’ Review: There’s Nothing Funny About Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman’s Funny Business

Joey King costars in a Netflix romantic comedy where everything is rich but the humor

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in A Family Affair Netflix
Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in "A Family Affair" (Credit: Netflix)

There is a long-standing tradition in films about people who make films, where the fake films are designed to look as fake as possible. Phony flicks like “Metalstorm,” the sci-fi cowboy action spectacular in “The Fall Guy,” and the cheesy “Jack Slater” movies in the Arnold Schwarzenegger meta-comedy “Last Action Hero” have the power to make the real movie we’re watching look a little better by comparison. Or at least more plausible.

So when it’s revealed in the new Netflix rom-com that movie star Chris Cole (Zac Efron) — who has just started dating the mother of his personal assistant (Joey King) — once acted in a film called “Beneath the Sea,” about invisible zombies that turn your brains into kelp, it’s a bad sign that it sounds much more entertaining that the movie right in front of us. “A Family Affair” has an affair, yes, and it sure does have family, but it doesn’t earn an “A.”

Cole is a clueless leading man. He’s so out of touch that he hasn’t been to a grocery store in decades and asks his assistant Zara to describe it to him. Zara understandably can’t stand this guy. She also can’t stand the script to his latest superhero sequel, “Icarus Rush 4,” which is described as “Die Hard” meets “Miracle on 34th Street,” with a plot that’s so much like Amazon’s upcoming Dwayne Johnson/Chris Evans comedy “Red One” that it almost sounds as if Netflix — which made “A Family Affair” — is trying to start a public feud. (Bring it on.)

Cole drives Zara up the wall with his wealthy detachment from reality, so she quits and goes back home to the giant mansion where she lives with her mother, Brooke (Nicole Kidman), a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. When Cole tries to get her back, he meets Brooke and they hit it off. They hit it off so fast that when Zara comes home, she catches her mom and her boss having frantic sex. Then Zara hits her head and has to go to the hospital, because “jokes.”

“A Family Affair,” written by Carrie Solomon, is an old fashioned romantic comedy with a high concept and (eventually) a Christmas theme. It’s directed by Richard LaGravenese (“The Last Five Years”), who has built his screenwriting and directing career on emotional tales of intimacy. It’s a movie that can’t decide if it wants to be a real romance or a cheesy romance, and “real romance” ekes out a very narrow win.

The only joke in “A Family Affair” that lands is the very last one, and even that only gets a bit of a chuckle. The punchlines about the silliness of Hollywood have no punch, and they’re undermined by how much we’re actually expected to find Cole’s life tragic. Which we do. Brooke bonds with Cole because as dopey as he seems, he’s dopey because he’s lonely and lost and only has Zara to connect with. Brooke can sympathize. Since her husband died 11 years ago, she’s also lonely and lost and only has Zara — and occasionally her mother-in-law Leila (Kathy Bates) — to connect with.

There’s a montage halfway through “A Family Affair” where Cole and Brook take long walks on the beach and play backgammon together. And that montage, as sappy as it is, makes a bigger impact than all the ridiculous scenes of Cole starring in “Icarus Rush 4,” because the film is committed to not taking “Icarus Rush” seriously, but steadfastly committed to making us believe that Brooke and Cole — two people separated by two decades and two very different (though similarly wealthy) lives — might actually fall for each other.

And while poor King’s Zara is stuck in perpetual exasperation, Efron and Kidman really sell their romance. They’re genuinely sweet together. They have real sexual chemistry. When Zara compares their affair to the Billy Wilder comedy “Love in the Afternoon,” Eugenie (Liza Koshy) says that the reference makes her lose sympathy for Zara, and want to root for their relationship to work. And the fact that nobody in this movie seems to remember what “Love in the Afternoon” is actually about only serves to remind us how fake this film’s Hollywood setting is, even though the actors make the romance seem real.

Carrie Solomon’s script deserves kudos for acknowledging, ultimately, that Zara is just as self-centered and selfish as her boss, another bit of emotional honesty that rings true in an otherwise annoyingly fake cinematic world. But even the sincerity of feelings in “A Family Affair” strikes a cloying cord because the rest of the film reads so insincere, at almost every other turn. It’s almost worth watching for Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman’s magnetism alone. If by “almost” you mean “not really.”


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